Monday, February 19, 2018

HOW NOT TO FACELIFT CULTURE


Indian literature is the richer for the election of Chandrasekhara Kambar as President of the Sahitya Akademi. The sad part of the story is that the distinguished Oriya writer, Pratibha Ray, was put up as a political opponent and was defeated at the polls. A novelist and academician of international fame, her commitment to a classless, casteless social order had led to her being called a Communist at one stage. How such a person ended up as part of the Sangh Parivar's scheme to capture the Sahitya Akademi is symptomatic of our times.

The usual practice at the Akademi is to choose the vice president as the president -- and Kambar has been vice president since 2013. (Back in 1993 the redoubtable U.R.Ananthamurthy had become president through a contest. In 2003, a Leftist-Rightist confrontation developed with Mahasweta Devi competing against Vice President Gopi Chand Narang for the presidency. Despite her unmatched standing as a writer and champion of tribals' rights, Mahasweta lost).

What surfaced this time was a concerted attempt to take over the Akademi look stock and barrel. Even the convener's post was contested by BJP-backed candidates. But this time the swing did not favour the Rightists. Even card-carrying communists got elected, such as Kerala's Prabha Varma, an award-winning poet.

The iconic stature of Chandrasekhara Kambar must have been a contributory factor in this victory of the deserving. With 11 anthologies, he is a poet who ranks with the best. With 25 plays, quite a few of them masterpieces, he is dramatist of the first order. He is an admired folklorist. He is a film director with some outstanding productions. None of these achievements come anywhere near his feat as a visionary educationist. The Kannada University in Hampi is proof of that.

That house of learning was his baby. He visualised its exterior forms as well as its soul-force. He picked the spots for the buildings, supervised the architectural forms to suit the culture the university represented, picked the stones and the colours and the shapes of the archways and gates. He worked out the intellectual contents of the courses on offer, decided how the graduate and post-graduate studies should mesh together. He paid meticulous attention to the selection of faculty and the organisation of academic activities. He functioned as founding Vice-Chancellor for two three-year terms. And then he handed over the reins to a scholar he handpicked, M.M. Kalburgi. Yes, the same distinguished thinker who was shot dead in 2015 by India's new-generation patriots.

Which gives a disturbing dimension to the Sangh Parivar's moves to capture the Sahitya Akademi. They did not succeed this time, but the danger remains real because capturing all cultural organisations has been a stated objective of the parivar. There is no attempt to conceal this objective. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had said soon after he assumed power that cultural institutions in India "are in total ruins" and the BJP Government was determined to "give them a facelift".

He did -- and how! A new chairperson was appointed to run the Sangeeth Natak Akademi. The board of trustees of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts was disbanded and a former ABVP president was appointed its chief. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was pushed around until its respected chief, Rangarajan, quit. It remains rudderless. The National Gallery of Modern Art, the National Archives of India are headless, run by government secretaries. The worst affected was the National Museum, perhaps because it was run with noticeable efficiency. The man in charge was removed by the Culture Ministry. Distinguished cultural leaders of the country protested and asked the Government to reinstate him. The Government ignored them.

This is Culture Minister Sharma's way of face-lifting our institutions. Remember, he is the man who promised to "cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised". (No wonder he recently asked tourists not to wear skirts). He is also the minister who was kind enough to concede that "A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, despite being a Muslim, was a nationalist".

When such are the minds that rule our country, should we be surprised if an undistinguished Gajendra Chauhan is made chief of Film & Television Institute? Should we be surprised if a Lokesh Chandra, named head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, describes Narendra Modi as an incarnation of God? Or if a Sudershan Rao, made chief of Indian Council of Historical Research, supports the caste system? That Chandrasekhara Kambar won is, in the circumstances, a surprise. Cheers for that.

Monday, February 12, 2018

CHINA: CLOSE TO SUPERPOWERDOM, BUT...

Confidence, authoritativeness and clear warning signals echoed from China's published statements on the Maldives crisis. Keep off, it tells the UN. Any military intervention will be strongly resisted, it tells India. This is the new China rising to world leadership at a speed that is both remarkable and worrying.

Usually China does this quietly with no grand-standing. This was seen recently with deep-sea spying equipment in the Pacific Ocean. Powerful acoustic censors were planted in two strategic spots, one in the deepest point on earth at 10,916 meters beneath sealevel. Both spots are near Guam, the largest American military base in Asia. With listening range of more than 1000 km, the censors can track submarine movements and intercept underwater signals. A leading US strategic expert underplayed it by saying that such things were standard practice. But he admitted: "China has become a great power and is acting like one".

Two months ago China revealed a new intercontinental missile system that was to be deployed in the first half of this year. Able to carry upto ten warheads that can be manoeuvred separately and with a range of upto 15,000 km, "the missile can hit every corner of the earth" according to a Chinese military expert. "All targets in the continental United States", clarified an Australian strategic expert. China is also into building its third aircraft carrier with a new aircraft launching technology.

What deserves special attention is that China is developing its soft-power superiority with the same diligence it bestows on its military prowess. In 2013 it launched its ambitious One Belt One Road project. The visionary zeal that prompted it was seen again in 2016 when the Asian Infrastructure Bank was launched, reducing the importance of the US-influenced World Bank and the status of the US dollar as an international currency.

Add to this the success it has registered on the business front. Alibaba is now a household name around the world, and not because of the forty thieves. Xiaomi's 2017 growth was higher than that of Apple, Samsung and Huawei combined. Oppo (as new as 2004) and Vivo (2009) are shaking up the leadership ranks in the mobile world. As many as 19 Chinese phone manufacturing companies dominate India, unmindful of Jio.

America loves to talk of China being a copy-cat economy. Donald Trump has launched an investigation into Chinese "theft" of US intellectual property. In 2013 there were reports that China had successfully hacked 24 major weapons systems in the US. There may be truth in all these. But the ultimate truth is Success. And China is Success.

The political-business success China has already scored is prompting it to look into brave new frontiers of science. Beijing Government is putting more money into the Artificial Intelligence industry than any other government. By 2030 it wants an AI industry worth $ 150 billion. Intelligent video and smart cameras are being developed without the privacy concerns of democratic countries. The development of electric-car technology is going at a hurried pace. Beijing is also moving to end American leadership in the computer-chip industry. As much as $ 22 billion is already pledged to develop advanced memory chips.

President Xi Jinping's timeline for China's superpower status is 2049. He seems well on his way despite China's notorious weaknesses -- pollution, the internal contradiction between free-market economy and communist controls, political tensions in border provinces, even overpopulation. It is the Government's no-nonsense approach to social control that keeps the problems under the lid. What worries the outside world is the brusqueness with which Beijing enforces its will over the weak.

South China Sea is the most disturbing example of this. China used its military force to get control of islands off Vietnamese and Philippine coasts. Some shoals in the sea have been developed into military bases. The International Court's ruling against Chinese claims has been ignored. American warships testing freedom-of-navigation routes have been warned against entering "Chinese Waters". Indian vessel en route to Vietnam's ports have also been cautioned.

Where's India in all this? Delhi did make a show of friendship to ASEAN countries on Republic Day. But these are countries unnerved by Chinese assertiveness. Delhi's alliance with the US and Japan has come unstuck with the US virtually giving up on Asia and Japan turning into an active negotiating partner with Beijing. India in fact looks blissfully out of the picture. Perhaps it will get back into it after achieving its priority objective of getting Hindi recognised in the UN.




Monday, February 5, 2018

UNITY, YES. BUT WHO WILL BE THE PM?


Now that the budget has assured Devaloka by 2019, we can return to more mundane things: How the opposition parties can unite against the BJP. The attempts made by some leaders last week were natural. Given the proliferation of parties that distinguishes our long-suffering democracy, electoral alliances are the only way to put a brake on the BJP's increasingly aberrant concepts -- from writing a whole new constitution to discriminatory orange passports. But dreams are not reality. Our opposition parties are so inward-looking that it is difficult for them to join hands in any meaningful way. The BJP's real strength is opposition disunity.

So it was no surprise that last week's efforts proved non-starters. CPM leader Sitaram Yechury's call for an impeachment of the Chief Justice of India proved a bit too radical to get traction. Sonia Gandhi's "brainstorming" session was an open-ended idea. Sharad Pawar made some concerted moves to float a broad platform: a Republic Day rally in Mumbai to "save the Constitution" and then a get-together of non-BJP leaders in Delhi. In attendance were the Congress, CPM, CPI, the National Conference, rebel JD(U) Sharad Yadav and also Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Ram Jethmalani.

That such disparate elements could collect under one umbrella was an indication that the parties recognise the importance of uniting against an opponent who freely uses governmental power to its advantage. But their intentions betray them because they are leader-oriented and the leaders are self-oriented. The Pawar initiative, for example, didn't click when it became clear that what he had in mind was a national alliance with him as the supreme leader, to wit, the prime ministerial candidate.

Pawar will inspire no confidence, given the NCP's record in office. The party's twin stars, Pawar and Praful Patel, were known as protectors of lobbies. When the poisonous pesticide endosulfan caused widespread and pathetic birth deformities in Kasargod-South Mangalore areas, Food Minister Pawar remained unconcerned, saying that further tests were necessary to prove endosulfan's culpability. Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel handled Air-India in such ways that even a Rs 30,000 crore bailout has been unable to save it. The CAG and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament had found evidence of doubtful financial decisions in the purchase of 110 aircraft in one go at a cost of Rs 50,000 crore.

A party led by such men can only be expected to put their interests above the country's. Hence the rejection of the Pawar move by other parties. The Trinamool Congress indirectly suggested that Mamata Bannerji was the only leader deserving to be an opposition prime ministerial candidate. There are others who swear by Chandrababu Naidu. And yet others by Naveen Patnaik.

The opposition infighting is the BJP's joy when it is facing trying times. The Shiv Sena has already walked out and Chandrababu Naidu has openly complained about being neglected. The BJP, in a spirit of defiance, is making overtures to Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra and Jaganmohan Reddy, Naidu's staunchest enemy, in Andhra Pradesh.

It's a replay of the Kautilya doctrine of sama, daana, bheda, danda. Where conciliation and bribes don't work, it is open to the use of threats and assaults. Was the recent raid on Karnataka minister D.K.Shivakumar's premises part of a plan to scare him into joining the BJP? After all, Shivakumar had helped the BJP's candidate win the Mysore Parliamentary seat in the last elections. Was there an understanding with Sharad Pawar in the last Gujarat elections? The BJP had become weak with the rise of the Jignesh-Hardik tide and the results showed that seven districts in the state had become BJP-mukt. The party managed to retain power only because the NCP fielded a large number of candidates and thereby split opposition votes significantly. Perhaps the NCP, too, has reasons to stay on the safe side of the BJP.

A sensible opposition can indeed find a solution to the leadership problem that is now obstructing their unity. If Rahul Gandhi is too young and too inexperienced, Mamata Bannerji too unpredictable in her moods and Sharad Pawar too tainted, they can still narrow down to someone like Naveen Patnaik who is at least non-controversial although his commitment to meaningful governance is open to doubt. His ability to avoid the limelight is no mean talent. If Rahul Gandhi sees the wisdom of biding his time till 2022 and others see the apparent harmlessness of Patnaik, a united opposition is not impossible to replace a party that allows lynching to become a patriotic pastime.




Monday, January 29, 2018

KARAT'S SUICIDE MODE: RSS APPROVES


We have to sympathise with Communist hardliner Prakash Karat. He is unable to decide whether Enemy No. 1 is the BJP or Sitaram Yachury. In public he said it was the BJP. In action he moved against Yachury's line of electoral understanding with other parties including the Congress. His stand was such a boost to RSS-BJP that their party organ wrote an editorial saying Karat was "right". That's a testimonial no other communist leader has got from Hindutva circles. Harkishen Singh Surjeet who spent a lifetime bringing differing opinions together must have turned over and over again in his grave.

It is not difficult to see that Karat took his inspiration from Pinarayi Vijayan, the Marxist ruler of Kerala and, as such, the principal bread-winner of the CPM today. For Pinarayi an anti-Congress stand makes local sense because the Congress is his Enemy No. 1 in Kerala. But India is different from Kerala. Pinarayi is shrewed and cunning enough to cultivate the BJP Prime Minister and to leave Kerala's Congress corruption kings undisturbed despite his pre-election threats to punish them. Such a pragmatist could not be unaware of the need to sup with the devil to win the battle against Enemy No. 1.

Karat's (and Pinarayi's) opposition to electoral deals is questionable in doctrinaire terms as well. Puritans talk of vulgar Marxism which is defined as "a variety of economic determinism with the alleged determination of the ideological superstructure by the economic infrastructure". (Marxists are unbeatable in the pyrotechnics of language). But there is inherent hypocrisy in their accepting the parliamentary system. Honest communism swears by revolution, and revolution alone. Participation in parliamentary activities creates, according to the purists, "parliamentary illusions among the masses" leading them to believe that changes can be brought about through means other than "the struggle to replace bourgeois democracy with socialist democracy".

Karat has accepted bourgeois democracy. Otherwise he would be with the Naxalites. He and his party have been participating in electoral politics. He even accepted the idea of alliances with other parties -- all of them bourgeois of course -- in order to fight elections. He and his CPM were part of the 12-party alliance that put Manmohan Singh's UPA Government in power in 2004. (Four years later he led the Left Front out of it).

Once you accept electoral politics, you have to accept its logic. And there is only one purpose around which that logic revolves: Winning. Karat contradicts himself when he enters muddy waters and insists that his shirt should stay stainless. Such insistence can come only from a mind that is already stained.

Democracy can of course be debunked as a system because it puts the corrupt and the criminal in power. There is a German-American economist, Hans-Hermann Hoppe who is described as "a paleolibertarian anarcho-capitalist philosopher". According to him "prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhabited demagogues. Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government".

Many of us might say Amen to that. Karat is free to do so and stay away from the game of demagogues. But the CPM is an active player in the game. It is in power in Kerala triumphantly and in Tripura shakingly. It is fighting elections and it wants to win. It does form alliances. In Kerala and Tripura, the CPM is in alliance with other parties. The BJP, too, is in alliance with others where it rules. Stalin collaborated with the UK-US to defeat the common enemy, Hitler.

In today's situation, a sort of two-party system dominates India. It is the BJP versus others. This is the result of the BJP being the only party that seeks a communally polarised India based on an extremist Hindutva ideology. The dangerous implications of this surfaced as soon as the BJP assumed power in Delhi in 2004; violent groups appeared across the country lynching and whipping and humiliating handpicked victims while the Government looked the other way.

It was to save India from a Pakistan-like fundamentalist religiosity that politicians raised the slogan of uniting against the BJP. That such unity can indeed save India was proved in the recent Gujarat elections. If Sharad Pawar's NCP had not split votes, the BJP would have been defeated in its home state. In the coming elections, too, if votes are not frittered away, the BJP will be defeated. That is why Prakash Karat's dogmatic position is not just foolish; it is suicidal.

Monday, January 22, 2018

NEW KERALA MODEL? NO HARM HOPING

Something extraordinary happened in Kerala last week. It is a state that was taken over quite some time ago by time-servers in public life, corruption kings and one-man parties with names that incorporate the leader's own name (Kerala Congress-M, for K.M.Mani, Kerala Congress-B, for Balakrishna Pillai). As for Communism, Kerala remains the last lingering toe-hold although the kind of communism on display might confuse even Deng Hsiaoping.

Such a twisted political landscape was suddenly enlivened by a first-in-the-world idea that could well prove contagious. "Loka Kerala Sabha" brought on one platform the Kerala diaspora that famously covers all nooks and corners of the world (and of the Moon, they say). When it was announced, the idea attracted scepticism. It was expected to be no more than a get-together of wealthy Malayalees in the Gulf with the state's politicians and officials. But the bulk of the delegates turned out to be scientists and scholars, barrier-breaking doctors, innovators, institution-builders and academics. Notable among them was an illiterate labourer whose incredible sufferings in the Gulf deserts under cruel employers had inspired the most celebrated novel in Malayalam in recent years.

Not that such facts softened the cynicism of critics. Who can blame them? The gap between promises and achievements had been wide irrespective of which party and which leader was in power. The Loka Sabha saw a hundred ideas coming up, all of them imaginative and practical. Even if ten of them are implemented, the state would set a model to the rest of the country. Wisps of hope rose from the fact that the Loka Sabha idea came from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who therefore has a stake in its success. He is also known as the strongest leader the CPM has had.

Will that bring results? He has given the right signals. He publicly accepted many of the suggestions that came up and pledged follow-up action. As the first step towards getting things done, he said a separate secretariat would be set up to oversee the Loka Sabha's proposals, with separate commissions to work out the details. He gave the impression that he had the will to do it. He certainly has the power.

If doubts still persist, it must be attributed to Kerala's history of obstructionist politics. Even Indira Gandhi was more circumspect about projecting her dynasty than the aforesaid K.M. Mani and Balakrishna Pillai are in getting their sons crowned. Highly controversial Congress Minister T.M.Jacob's inexperienced son became a minister only because he was his father's son. A son like Sachin Pilot gets public acceptance because of his ability, but a daughter like Padmaja is spurned by voters because her sole "qualification" is being former strongman K.Karunakaran's daughter.

The farcical depth to which dynasticism has fallen in Kerala is exemplified by the leader of the SNDP, the social organisation meant to project the ideals of the revered Narayana Guru. Vellapalli, a wealthy toddy businessman, turned SNDP into his personal vehicle. Floating a political outfit with the mouthful name Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, he projected his son as a minister candidate. They joined the BJP-led NDA, but no breadcrumbs came their way. So they quit the NDA and the son, without any sense of shame, said his outfit would collaborate with any party for power. There are no takers yet.

Political clowns flourish when values have no role. Few parties suffered more than the Congress because of the loss of values. From Karunakaran's time the Congress had become a time-serving organisation. A.K.Antony flaunted high values but, as Chief Minister and later as Defence Minister, became a meaningless leader because he would take no decision lest his personal reputation for purity be spoiled. Oommen Chandy defined governance by the number of people who crowded around him at any given moment. All this when the Congress has several leaders respected by the people for their integrity. Neither they nor the very capable young leaders waiting in the wings are allowed to come up.

Leaders past the use-by date, selfish family patriarchs, blatant opportunists of power-at-any-cost parties like Sharad Pawar's NCP, all add up to a circus where the communists look at least like a disciplined party. Except that the bourgeois communism of the CPM is poles apart from the relatively proletarian communism of the CPI. In this atmosphere the realisation of any of the Loka Kerala Sabha's ideas would be a miracle. If Pinarayi Vijayan proves that he is also a miracle man, the story of Kerala might open a whole new chapter.